WASHINGTON -- The White House faced a barrage of questions Friday over the timing of President Bush's decision to declassify intelligence that was then leaked to the press by Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff.
In a tense briefing, White House spokesman Scott McClellan was asked repeatedly to explain his statement from three years ago that portions of a prewar intelligence document on Iraq were declassified on July 18, 2003.
Ten days earlier, Cheney's top aide had leaked snippets of intelligence from the document to New York Times reporter Judith Miller in order to rebut allegations by Bush administration critic Joseph Wilson, the aide has told prosecutors according to documents revealed this week.
I. Lewis Libby, Cheney's former chief of staff, said he had passed the information to Miller after being told to do so by Cheney, who advised Libby that Bush had authorized it, stated a court filing by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald.
McClellan told reporters on July 18, 2003, that the material being released on Iraq "was officially declassified today." On Friday, McClellan interpreted his own words to mean that's when the material was "officially released."
Asked when it was declassified, McClellan refused to answer, saying that the matter was part of Fitzgerald's ongoing CIA leak probe that has resulted in Libby's indictment.
Libby faces charges of perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI in the Valerie Plame affair. He is accused of making false statements about how he learned of her CIA employment and what he told reporters about her.
The declassification issue marks the second time in the CIA leak probe that the White House's previous public statements have been called into question.
After checking with Libby and presidential adviser Karl Rove, McClellan said in 2003 that neither aide was involved in the leak of the CIA identity of Wilson's wife. Rove remains under investigation in the leak probe.
Administration critics said the president's actions were a misuse of the declassification process.
Bush's "selective declassification of highly sensitive intelligence for political purposes is wrong," said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Pelosi said a presidential executive order requires a uniform system for classifying, declassifying, and safeguarding national security information and asked, "Why didn't President Bush follow this protocol before authorizing the selective leak of highly sensitive intelligence?"
Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., called for a House Intelligence Committee investigation and for the president to explain in person to Congress.
Last year, a commission appointed by Bush to look into the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq cautioned against leaks for political purposes.
"Policymakers who leak intelligence to the press in order to gain political advantage ... may do so without fully appreciating the potential harm that can result to sources and methods," the commission said.
It said the intelligence community should consider implementing "a widespread, modern-day equivalent of the 'Loose Lips Sink Ships' campaign to educate individuals about their legal obligations and possible penalties to safeguard intelligence information."
On Friday, McClellan said there's a difference between providing declassified information when it's in the public interest, and leaking classified information that could jeopardize national security.
"Now, there are Democrats out there that fail to recognize that distinction or refuse to recognize that distinction," said McClellan. "They are simply engaging in crass politics."
Plame's CIA employment was disclosed by conservative columnist Robert Novak eight days after her husband, Wilson, accused the Bush administration of manipulating prewar intelligence to exaggerate the Iraqi threat from weapons of mass destruction.
The intelligence Libby was authorized to leak to Miller stated that Iraq was "vigorously trying to procure" uranium. Administration officials said in the run-up to the war they were concerned about Iraq building a nuclear weapon.